Two fugitives, decades apart in age, come to terms with their deepest regrets in Stewart’s meditative fifth novel (The History of Us, 2013, etc.).
High on a mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee, in what is known as the Domain, two women have moved into small cottages overlooking a pond. Each has come seeking isolation and is at first annoyed to notice she's not the only pondside occupant. Margaret, 90, intends to live out her days with only her World War II scrapbook, her parents’ furniture, and her memories as companions. Jennifer, accompanied by her small son, Milo, rents the cabin across the pond from Margaret. Alternating between the first-person narration of Margaret and Jennifer’s third-person voice, Stewart establishes that each woman harbors a secret: each feels responsible for the death of her soul mate. In Margaret’s case, this is Kay, a fellow nurse with whom she served as Allied forces slogged across Western Europe after D-Day. Jennifer has left her small town and gone into a form of hiding after the death of her husband, Tommy, the love of her life but a hopeless drunk. (The exact nature of Jennifer’s guilt about Tommy is withheld until roughly halfway through the book.) Gradually, the grip of the past loosens as each woman reaches out with trepidation toward the world of the present. Though deficient in self-understanding, Jennifer, a massage therapist, is able to instantly diagnose the emotional states locked in the muscles of her clients, including Margaret. Margaret enlists Jennifer to help her record her memories of World War II and of Kay. Jennifer reluctantly enrolls Milo in preschool and is drawn into a small group of parents, including Megan and Sebastian, whose conflicted but functional marriage stands in grim contrast to Jennifer’s own. The arrival, late in the novel, of Zoe, Jennifer’s estranged teenage daughter, offers the possibility of a neat, sentimental resolution, which Stewart wisely avoids. Stewart’s prose is remarkable for its well-shaped sentences and nonshowy but sharp observations.